By Andrea Clemett, Picket Fence Media intern

Bernice Ayer Middle School recently received recognition from the National Forum to Accelerate Middle-Grades Reform as a “school to watch” in 2018. The school was identified as a high-performing middle school for its School Wide Educational Learning Lab (Swell).

“Swell” time allows an additional 30 minutes for students to receive additional instruction in courses with which they struggle. Principal Nick Stever said the school debuted the program in May when it replaced the previous Educational Support Program that provided students with the option of staying in the classroom or seeking help. He and the staff decided that they did not want to leave it to chance for students to receive support and therefore created an equitable system to embed it within the school day.

If students require extra assistance, it is determined by assessments throughout the year, low grades or tests scores and absences. The classes are divided by grade level into closed classes in which students will receive a subject intervention course that weighs priority that day (e.g., math on Thursday). The students who are not in need of assistance will attend open courses in which they select electives such as coding, advanced art or flag football.

“We wanted to provide a system that meets the need of every child on campus, regardless of home life, money to buy a tutor or socioeconomic status,” Stever said. “We thought all kids deserve to learn at high levels, and the way we found we can do this was by creating guaranteed time to each student.”

Developed over four years, social studies teacher Christine Gibson said staff collaborated in identifying the essential information required for students.

The staff visited other schools and saw a version of what one school in Tustin was accomplishing and returned to the drawing board.
Stever said Bernice Ayer is the only school utilizing this model of the Swell program in the district.

The school maintained a close engagement with parents when it launched in order to be sensitive to the emotional well-being of the students involved, Stever said, adding that the program is not a stigma that targets one group of students.

Students receive extra tutoring during one of Bernice Ayer Middle School’s School Wide Educational Learning Lab, or “Swell.” The program was recently recognized for its success in helping children improve their grades in certain coursework. Photo: Andrea Clemett
Students receive extra tutoring during one of Bernice Ayer Middle School’s School Wide Educational Learning Lab, or “Swell.” The program was recently recognized for its success in helping children improve their grades in certain coursework. Photo: Andrea Clemett

“Parents are really pleased with this program,” said Johanna Roberts-Knochenhauer, PTA president and parent of a Bernice Ayer student. “It rewards the children with enrichment classes, provides time to get homework done if they have extracurricular activities after school and also provides kids who may be struggling on a certain lesson to get help until they grasp that particular lesson.”

Gibson said students have figured out how to advocate for themselves during the Swell period when they request extra help, time to study prior to a test or extra time to complete assignments. Swell enables students to learn in small groups of 10 per class by including more staff administrators and counselors. Their goal was to alleviate the high numbers in the classrooms and facilitate individual support.

“The key to the success has been driven by our teachers and staff.” Stever said. “This system could only work if the teachers believe in it, own it and deeply care about student success.”

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